March 6, 2012

1983: Boddie Upstages Walker as Express Beat Generals in USFL Debut

The United States Football League commenced its inaugural season with five games on March 6, 1983 (there was also a Monday night contest the following day to round out Week 1). Of those games, the one that drew the most attention was played in Los Angeles, where the Express hosted the New Jersey Generals.

There was a national television audience and a large press contingent in addition to 34,002 fans in attendance at the Memorial Coliseum. The reason for the intense scrutiny was the presence of one player, RB Herschel Walker. A three-time All-American and winner of the Heisman Trophy as a junior, he had left the Univ. of Georgia a year early to sign a three-year, $4.2 million contract with the USFL club in a stunning move just weeks before the season commenced.

Expectations were high for Walker, although he had only practiced with the club for a short time since his signing. When the contest was all over another rookie, RB Tony Boddie of the Express (pictured above), who was an unknown 12th round draft choice out of Montana State, would be receiving accolades for his performance.

With veteran NFL backup Mike Rae at quarterback, the Express started off the scoring in the first quarter with a 23-yard field goal by Vince Abbott. New Jersey, also with a veteran pro backup at quarterback in ex-Saint Bobby Scott, scored the first touchdown, and it was Walker running in from five yards out. The extra point attempt failed, however, and the Generals held to a three-point lead. Dave Jacobs booted a 38-yard field goal with just seconds remaining in the opening period to extend New Jersey’s lead to 9-3.

On the opening drive of the second quarter, LA added three points on a 27-yard field goal by Abbott. Rookie Tom Ramsey, a local product from UCLA, replaced Rae at quarterback for the Express five minutes into the period with the Generals holding a 9-6 lead. Ramsey passed to Boddie for an 11-yard touchdown late in the half to put the Express ahead at 13-9.

Four minutes into the third quarter, Los Angeles scored again when Ramsey threw to WR Vister Hayes for a 24-yard TD. The Generals came back with a touchdown of their own in the fourth quarter with Scott hitting WR Tom McConnaughey from ten yards out. Scott’s pass for a two-point conversion fell incomplete and the Express held onto a five-point lead.

With 3:48 left and the ball at the LA 31, Coach Hugh Campbell of the Express chose to go for it on fourth-and-inches. The gamble failed when reserve FB LaRue Harrington carried the ball into the middle of the line and was stopped for no gain. (Afterward, Campbell said that the Express had two injured defensive backs and he was concerned that they wouldn’t have been able to stop New Jersey’s passing attack, thus prompting the effort to maintain possession).

It appeared that it might prove fatal to the home team when the Generals moved swiftly to the Los Angeles five, but then Scott was sacked for a nine-yard loss and, with Walker standing on the sidelines, a fourth-down pass to WR Larry Brodsky came up inches short of a first down and LA was able to run out the clock for a 20-15 win.

The Generals outgained the Express (366 yards to 296), had more first downs (22 to 16), and held onto the ball longer (34:09 to 25:51). However, they also turned the ball over five times, to just one suffered by LA, and Scott was sacked four times while Express quarterbacks were tossed twice. Both teams ran the ball 33 times apiece and Los Angeles outgained the Generals by 169 to 147.

Herschel Walker’s pro debut was pronounced a disappointment as he gained 65 yards on 16 carries that included one TD and caught just one pass for three more yards. By contrast, the unknown Tony Boddie made a splash by gaining 77 yards on 13 attempts and adding 5 pass receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown.

Tom Ramsey completed only 8 of 20 passes for 117 yards for the Express, but two of them went for touchdowns against one interception. Mike Rae was 3-for-7 and 22 yards. While Boddie had the most catches, Vister Hayes was the yardage leader with 60 on his four receptions.

For the Generals, Bobby Scott was successful on 24 of 38 throws for 251 yards and a TD, but was picked off three times. TE Victor Hicks was the top receiver with 5 catches for 69 yards while Tom McConnaughey was right behind with 61 yards on his four receptions. After Walker, the next-leading rusher was FB Dwight Sullivan with 7 carries for 35 yards.

“A lot of the guys had more speed than I expected to see,” said Walker (pictured at left) in summing up his first pro game. “And the execution was better. I guess that’s the biggest adjustment I have to make.”

“I said before the game that we’d use other backs because Herschel had been with us only a week,” said Generals Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks. “In the second half, we were in a catch-up situation early and I felt I had to take him out because of his lack of preparation.”

“We didn’t block as well as we should have for him – we can help him out a lot more than we did today,” added Fairbanks.

“This was real fun,” said Tom Ramsey, whose first pro contest proved to be more satisfying. “I think this is one of the more exciting games I’ve ever played in. The fans got their money’s worth. When the fans are with you, like these fans were, it fires me up.”

Over the course of the season, Herschel Walker asserted himself as a ball carrier and ended up leading the USFL with 1812 yards on 412 carries (4.4 avg.) and 17 touchdowns – he was also New Jersey’s leading pass receiver with 53 catches for 489 yards and another TD. As for Tony Boddie, he returned to earth, ending up 23rd in the league in rushing (and second on the Express) with 403 yards on 109 attempts (3.7 avg.) and three scores while pulling in 46 passes for 434 yards and two TDs.

Both teams ended up with losing records. The Express went 8-10, which was still good enough to contend in the weak Pacific Division (the Oakland Invaders won the division title at 9-9). Alternating quarterbacks (a preference of Coach Campbell from his years in the CFL) and with a generally weak running game, LA could not generate the offensive consistency to put sufficient points on the board and negated the efforts of the fifth-ranked defense. New Jersey was more of a disappointment, finishing 6-12 and well out of the running in the Atlantic Division. Bobby Scott didn’t last the year – he was dealt to Chicago when injuries depleted their quarterback ranks – and Jeff Knapple, Gene Bradley, and Dave Boisture were found wanting.